Caffeine and sleep apnea: What’s the connection?

How are caffeine and sleep apnea connected, beyond the basic knowledge that caffeine – as commonly found in coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate and other popular forms – generally works to keep you awake?

Let’s take a look at how one of the most common tips for improved sleep – specifically avoiding excessive caffeine intake or avoiding it before bedtime – relates to sleep apnea. (Get ready: The answer may surprise you!)

Caffeine and sleep apnea: The experts say…

First off, it’s widely accepted among medical experts that caffeine contributes to sleep-disordered breathing (SDB). “SDB is independently associated with caffeinated soda use in the general community,” as the authors of a 2012 study published in CHEST Journal put it.1

However, SDB and sleep apnea aren’t exactly the same. When looking at the specific connection between caffeine and sleep apnea, researchers sometimes arrive at a somewhat different conclusion.

“A small amount of research has been conducted in the potential connections between caffeine use and obstructive sleep apnea,” writes sleep apnea expert Timothy Morgenthaler, M.D., at the Mayo Clinic’s website.2 (You may recall Dr. Morgenthaler as one of the medical pioneers who helped define complex sleep apnea.)

It may come as a bit of a surprise to those who regard caffeine as the enemy of sleep to discover that those studies actually point to a tendency for caffeine to help sleep apnea patients.

A higher-than-average daily caffeine intake “was noticed to improve the cognitive performance in patients with moderate/severe sleep apnea,” a 2010 study published in the medical journal Current Neuropharmacology concluded.3

A 2008 study in the journal Sleep and Breathing backs up this claim, also concluding that “in patients with moderately severe OSA, higher average daily caffeine intake was associated with less cognitive impairment.”4

“In addition, doctors sometimes prescribe caffeine for premature infants to reduce episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep,” Dr. Morgenthaler adds. He also points out that “tea or coffee use didn’t appear to be associated with more severe sleep-disordered breathing.”

Monitoring your intake of caffeine is a smart idea for maintaining a healthy sleep schedule – drink caffeine “earlier in the day, with a meal,” as the Canadian Lung Association advises. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that sleep apnea and caffeine have a negative relationship. In fact, for people with sleep apnea, a daily dose of tea of coffee (probably in the morning) may prove beneficial.

As always, if you have any questions about caffeine and sleep apnea – or any other issue regarding sleep health – consult your doctor or sleep specialist.

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.

Related articles